Martin, a very senior citizen, wants to get a bucket and knife and go hunt up some greens in a field in Alabama. But in spite of his yearnings for a big bowl of greens, he knows his wife, Martha, won’t want to cook them even if he brings back enough for a feast.
Like him, Martha also grew up poor in Alabama back in the Forties. It was a time when greens were a staple for the poor, black and white, who lived in the country, And they remained a staple for those who moved north to the cities looking for work.
Seventy years later they remain a staple today for many in rural and urban environments. For some they have become a delicacy. But not for Martin’s wife. She has had her fill of greens.
But if Martin can catch her in the right mood, she’ll cook up a batch for him in return for Dairy Queen’s largest milkshake brought home from town.
Martin can cook but he says his greens don’t taste as good even if he makes them exactly as his wife does.
When Martin was a boy during World War II, he and his parents would take a bucket and little sharp knives and head to the meadow below Nodder's Hill. They would look for dandelion greens.
The greens had to be tender and small. They would sever each one carefully from the ground and usually keep working until the bucket was full.
It was while hunting greens with his parents Martin developed a sharp eye for the little treasured greens that tasted so good served with his mother’s cornbread.
Some people harvested dandelions to make wine. But his mother didn’t cotton to wine. She believed dandelion greens should be eaten. And she loved to cook them.
Martin’s father would stand up in the field and announce when they had enough greens in their bucket.
He can still hear his father say to his mother, “Martha, we have a mess of these greens. Let's head home.” And then the family would head back to their shack so his mother could begin her magic on the stove.
That night all three would eat much better than on many other nights.
His father would thoroughly wash the greens while his mother got the big pan ready with salt pork. After allowing the salt pork to boil for a considerable time, she would cram the greens down in the water on top of the nearly cooked meat.
As a boy Martin liked to peer in the pot and watch the greens wilt and see all those greens dwindle down to a few. The pot liquor would ride greasy to the top. His family wouldn't eat that but he knew and still knows families who do.
While the greens were cooking, Martin remembers the ungodly smell that filled the kitchen. Oblivious to the stench, his mother would begin to make cornbread.
When the bread was baked and the greens were cooked, she would put the greens and salt pork in a bowl for each of them and then pour apple vinegar over the greens.
Cornbread made the meal complete. Sometimes there would be an apple for dessert. They’d cut it up and split it.
Martin says he has never seen greens cooked on the Food Network now that he’s retired and that’s too bad from his point of view.
Greens, he said, were peasant food when he was a boy, one of his favorites in the limited genre of that cuisine.
Down in Alabama in the Forties, hunting, cooking and eating good greens were one of the few things black and white folks had in common.
Hunting for greens in a good field would sometimes bring them together when the time was right and the weather was good.
Martin says he and his parents would be out in the same field with black folks and other white folks looking for the best greens they could find. Not much chit-chat. They were all about business—harvesting the best greens.
He doesn’t remember, however, enjoying a meal of greens and cornbread with blacks. No picnics or anything like that.
In the Forties, he says, greens were segregated too although he recalls in his family no active animus toward blacks.
Back then, if you were in the field hunting for greens, whatever your color, you didn’t have much money.
Besides, once the greens had boiled down, there wasn’t a whole lot to share. Leftovers were never a problem.